Cockpit management in commercial airlines

Cockpit management in commercial airlines […] ity the captain holds over the first officer in the cockpit. The dynamics of the relationships in an airline cockpit are varied, but the captain always holds specific authority over the other crew including the first officer. The captain’s authority in the cockpit is necessary for a number of reasons, but when it reaches a point where the first officer is afraid to challenge the captain’s command and decisions, then the results can be devastating and even deadly.

This acknowledged authority relates directly to aircraft regulations as well as history and accepted norms in the industry. The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) states that ultimately, the captain holds the final authority over the crew and the airplane. The CFR also demands captains have considerable more flight time than first officers. Captains must have at least 1500 hours, while first officers only require 200 hours (Tarnow 112). In addition to the CFR rules, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also have certain cockpit rules which include “the pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft’ (1996 CFR, Paragraph 91.3)” (Tarnow 113). However, the rules also state that during an emergency, the pilot can deviate from these rules. Thus, the captain is much more experienced in flight matters, and his authority is often “gold” in the airline cockpit.

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While the CFR has sets out certain requirements, each airline also sets their own personnel policies that govern the relationships and requirements in the cockpit. Most of this information is proprietary to each airline, but one commonality is the time it takes for most pilots to make the rank of captain. In most airlines, it can take at least ten years to advance to captain. Most airlines also require seniority on the airline’s union crew list to advance to captain rank (Tarnow 112). Thus, there is precedence for giving the captain such extreme authority over the crew. He or she has more experience, has worked hard to make the rank of captain, and has rules and regulations backing up the authority. Ultimately, studies show that captains commonly have three to four times the flight time of their first officers, and this experience is probably one of the most important human factors in the cockpit. However, simply because a captain has more flight time and experience, he or she may not have viable leadership or management qualities that are the backbone of successful and amiable cockpit relationships. More airlines are looking into the dynamics of the managerial relationship in the cockpits and developing cockpit management resources that give captains and crew more tools for managing the cockpit and each other more effectively.

Perhaps an even more enduring reason behind the captain’s complete authority in the cockpit is the development of aviation. Historically, early planes were one-pilot affairs, and the pilots obviously exerted complete authority over their aircraft and their skills. This one-man mentality carried over into the first commercial carriers, and has continued to this day, leading to a chain of command that is difficult to overcome in many airline environments. In addition, many military pilots (who often transition to airlines after their military service is over) also are used to the extreme authority and control of the military, and carry it over into their cockpit routine, demanding complete authority and command in the cockpit. In fact, many early airline procedure manuals urged the first officer not to correct the captain if he made a mistake (Tarnow 113). Historically, many captains also felt because the first officers were less experienced, they were still “growing” into their jobs, and had little of the experience necessary to make some of complex decisions the captain had to make during flight. Finally, corporate culture is historically hierarchical, and this also adds to the rigid chain of command in the cockpit. All of these historic and corporate routines add credence to the authority of the pilot over the cockpit crew, and show why it is so difficult for many captain’s to listen to the first officer, even when it is necessary.

Another of the most compelling reasons for the captain’s authority over the flight crew is simple day-to-day operations. In most airlines, the crew is extremely flexible, and a captain will change crew with just about every flight. Thus, the crew must have a leader who can take them through the process each time, no matter who he or she is flying with. The crew has certain consistencies this way, which transcend who they are flying with, or what particular aircraft they are flying. As author Clint a. Bowers notes, “In commercial aviation in particular, crewmembers might change daily or even several times per day. Thus, there is a need to establish competencies that allow this rapid transition to take place” (Bowers 70). Then, the captain’s ultimate authority simply makes sense when crews are as fluid as they are in the industry. The captain and his actions and authority are constant, even if the crew, the flight, and the aircraft are not.

While there are certainly enduring, historic, and even legal reasons for the captain’s authority over the first officer in the airline cockpit, there have also been some serious repercussions from the captain’s often complete authority, especially during emergencies. One researcher, Eugen Tarnow, sees captains who exert too much complete authority in the cockpit as practicing “destructive obedience,” and this can lead to problems, disagreements, lack of respect, and even death. Tarnow writes, “a review of airplane accidents in the United States by the NTSB indirectly suggests that destructive obedience causes up to 25% of all plane crashes” (Tarnow 111). Thus, a captain who exerts extreme or total leadership over his crew may be more destructive than supportive.

Too much authority over the first officer can be deadly, as many well-known aircraft disasters have shown. In fact, the largest airline disaster in history – the crash in the Tenerife Islands in 1977, was directly related to poor decision-making by the captain, and the first officer failing to communicate effectively with the captain. The Dutch KLM captain was a training captain, and rarely flew standard routes anymore. The first officer seemed to fear the captain because of his authority and position with the company, and failed to correct the captain’s false assumption that the flight had received takeoff clearance from the tower, when in fact they had not. The captain began his takeoff roll in low visibility with a Pan-Am flight still on the runway, and so, crashed into the Pam Am 747. Five hundred and eighty-three people were killed on the two planes, and general consensus is the accident was a combination of pilot and ATC error (Mondout). Clearly, the first officer’s lack of communication with the captain acerbated an already poor situation, and perhaps if the captain’s authority had been more approachable, the accident might not even have occurred.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the national organization that studies aircraft accidents, among other functions, has also discovered a high rate of procedural errors during emergencies in the cockpit between the captain and the first officer. NTSB studies found errors they called monitoring or challenging “were the most common, occurring in 80% of the accident sample. These were errors in which the non-flying crew member (the first officer in 81% of the cases) did not properly monitor and challenge the flying crew member when errors were committed” (Tarnow 120). Thus, the Tenerife disaster is not the only mishap that may have directly occurred because of a lack of challenge by the flight officer when the captain erred. While authority is important in the cockpit, it is also extremely important for the first officer to understand the ramifications of not challenging or questioning the captain when situations require it. Tarnow goes on to say that as many as 25% of commercial aviation accidents may directly relate to this lack of challenge in the cockpit (Tarnow 120). This fear of the captain’s authority by the first officer is then more than simply a failure to communicate effectively, it can lead to deadly consequences for the crew and the passengers.

What is the solution to extreme, unapproachable authority by the captain in the cockpit? Many airlines are developing Cockpit Management Resource (CRM) training to help manage new roles for both captain and first officer. These training models help the crew communicate more effectively, and give the captain tools to manage and communicate more effectively. Many studies indicate that CRM just makes good training sense in the airline industry. Author Bowers continues, “Those [CRM] trainees who knew more about assertiveness and metacognition were able to perform significantly better in situations that required assertiveness skills and situational judgment, respectively, than those who had less knowledge in these areas” (Bowers 71). Aircraft crews know that each aircraft, each cockpit, and each route are different, and so they must develop very unique skills that allow them to transition between different equipment and crew quickly and effectively. CRM is extremely efficient in preparing crews for these always changing roles in aircraft, because it helps them become more flexible and fluid, too. In fact, the captain, Al Haynes, who landed United flight 232 in Sioux City Iowa on July 19, 1989, now teaches CRM to both United crews and other airline crews. His management of the emergency in the cockpit helped the crew land the crippled jet when it seemed nearly impossible. He said after the crash that the crew, even off duty United personnel flying non-rev, worked together to manage the situation and come up with creative ideas to fly a plane without hydraulics. He said to the crew, “What do you want to do, I don’t know, and let’s try this, and you think that’ll work, beats me, and that’s about the way it went, really” (Haynes). Thus, correct CRM procedures in the cockpit can save lives, and create a sense of support and teamwork that complete authority does not induce. While 112 people lost their lives in the crash, 185 survived, and Haynes and other believe that is a direct result of CRM techniques the crew had learned and knew how to utilize in an emergency.

In addition, author Eugen Tarnow proposes an “obedience optimization” technique that may be far more valuable for the cockpit crew. Tarnow acknowledges there must be an organized structure in the cockpit, but feels that obedience must be optimized for the best performance and safety. Tarnow encourages using role-playing techniques between a captain and first officer to determine just how the captain and first officer react to certain cockpit situations, and if the first officer challenges the captain when necessary. From this, an “obedience score” is recorded, and the captain and first officer can then review the score, and make changes to their behavior when necessary. Tarnow believes “the regular use of obedience optimization will serve to create a norm for orders that can be given and to encourage critical evaluations of future orders” (Tarnow 121), and encourages the use of his model as part of the standard checklist procedure before takeoff.

In conclusion, while the historic and legal model of the aircraft captain holding ultimate authority over the crew is long-standing and makes sense in many respects, most experts and aviation professionals agree that today, there must be more of a team organization and dynamic in the cockpit. The captain who demands ultimate authority, even when dangerous or emergency situations arise, leaves themselves open to miscommunication, poor judgment, and common mistakes. Additional input from the first officer can be important, and even life-saving, as some well-known aircraft accidents have shown. The cockpit of an aircraft is a unique work environment, but it still involves teamwork along with experience and understanding of flight manuals and procedures.


Bowers, Clint a. “Chapter 4 Establishing Aircrew Competencies: A Comprehensive Approach for Identifying CRM Training Needs.” Aircrew Training and Assessment. Eds. O’Neil, Harold F. And Dee H. Andrews. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000. 67-80.

Haynes, Al. “The Crash of United Flight 232.” 1991. 24 March 2004.

Mondout, Patrick. “Pair of 747s Collide in Worst Air Disaster of 20th Century.” 2004. 24 March 2005. (

Tarnow, Eugen. “Self-Destructive Obedience in the Airplane Cockpit and the Concept of Obedience Optimization.” Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm. Ed. Blass, Thomas. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000. 111-121.

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